Inside Cho's Mind

A report released today shows what led to the tragic events at Virginia Tech.

January 8, 2009, 12:32 AM

Aug. 30, 2007 — -- After months of investigation into the shootings at Virginia Tech, Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia released a much anticipated report this morning by a panel of experts he convened.

The bottom line: The killer, Seung Hui Cho, had been mentally ill since childhood. Over the years, his family and others had gotten him help -- including counseling and medication. But when Cho arrived at Virginia Tech, the systems failed.

Molly Donohue lived in West Ambler Johnston Hall, the dormitory where Cho's shooting spree began. "A little before 7:15, I heard a really loud female voice scream … and then I heard two very, very loud poundings again. It sounded like they were against the cement wall," Donohue told ABC News. "And then I heard another scream and I heard more poundings and this is all happening very on top of each other and all at once."

In her first television interview since the shootings, Blacksburg Police Chief Kim Crannis and members of her department sat down with "Nightline" to explain how the police department responded to the Cho shootings.

According to Crannis, the police department "got a call of a subject who they thought had fallen out of the bed."

By 7:20 or 7:30 a.m., Blacksburg Police Lt. Donnie Goodman arrived at the scene.

"Once the first responding officer got there, he realized there was more to it than that," Crannis said.

After hearing the initial noise outside her door, Donohue explained what she saw. "I opened my door and that's when I saw the blood and the footprints, the sneaker prints leading in a trail from her room, and just leading away from everything… and that's when I saw, at the time I didn't know it was my [Resident Assistant Ryan Clark] and we called him 'Stack.'"

"This is what we know: we've got one male that's dead, we got one female that's clinging to life that's being airlifted to a central Virginia trauma center, and the shooter's loose," Capt. Bruce Bradbery of the Blacksburg Police Department told "Nightline." "You assume in a situation like that you're going to wrap this thing up pretty quickly, hope that you can."

But even after the deaths of Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark at West Ambler Johnston Hall, it was far from over. What no one knew, what no one imagined, was that the killing at Virginia Tech had only just begun. Across campus, a dangerously disturbed young man was methodically readying his final act -- a killing spree that would leave the entire country stunned by its sheer scale and brutality.

The story begins far away form Virginia, in another country, another culture.

Cho was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1984. Some of his extended family still lives there, including his maternal grandfather, Hyang-Sik Kim, who said the Cho family today is shattered. Kim spoke exclusively with "Nightline."

"I got a call from my daughter almost a month after the shooting," said Kim. "She said she was calling from outside. All she said was, 'Is that you, father?' And then it was an ocean of tears."

While in Seoul, the Cho family ran a used bookstore and made little money doing it. Cho lived with his parents and his older sister Sun-Kyung Cho in a basement apartment.

But according to Kim, there was something about little Cho that made him worry, even then. He recalls a little boy marked by a mysterious, impenetrable silence. "He never came up to me or called me Grandpa. Even as a child, he never hugged."

In 1992, determined to find a better life, the Cho family immigrated to the United States, settling in Washington, D.C.'s large, thriving Korean community.

Cho's parents both worked long hours in the dry cleaning business. Cho attended Poplar Tree Elementary School in Chantilly, Va. He was 9 years old, and didn't speak much English, but it soon became clear he wouldn't speak at all.

It was at Poplar Tree Elementary that Cho was first identified as having developmental problems -- both emotional and verbal. The school put him in an individualized education program, or what might be called special education. The school also offered the family outside counseling.

Dr. Bela Sood, a member of the official Virginia Tech review panel, spoke with Cho's family. In an exclusive interview, Sood told "Nightline" that Cho, "did appear very withdrawn and quiet, and the school was very quick at picking that up."

A veteran child psychiatrist, Sood said Cho got a lot of help, both from school officials and from his hard-strapped immigrant family. A family acquaintance, who agreed to an interview with "Nightline" on the condition that her name wasn't used, remembers the family's struggles with their son.

"When he first came to America he was in about the second grade," said the acquaintance. "Every time he came home from school he would cry and throw tantrums saying he never wanted to return to school."

Throughout these school years, Cho's classmates recognized him as different. According to Patrick Song, a classmate of Cho's at both high school and Virginia Tech, "He just had this demeanor about him where he would just walk around, and he would always face down. He would never look anyone in the face really, his eyes were always down, his shoulders down. He kind of had a puzzled, confused look on his face, but it was serious. It was really depressing to look at him."

Ben Baldwin went to middle school, high school and Virginia Tech with Cho. "The teacher would call on him to read a passage from like a story or like a play in English class and he would just sit there and he wouldn't talk, or if he would, he would mumble and then the teacher -- if he wouldn't talk -- the teacher would actually physically come up to him and like prompt him, like, 'Hey, do this for me. Come on just read this passage Seung and we can move on."

And then, in 1999, Columbine shocked the nation. Cho was in the eighth grade. The 15-year old was transfixed by the horror, and his teachers noticed that menacing, dark and violent fantasies erupted in his school work.

"I remember sitting in Spanish class with him, right next to him, and there being something written on his binder to the effect of, you know, '"F"' you all, I hope you all burn in hell,' which I would assume meant us, the students," Baldwin said. "And the teacher saw that and she came over and she got him, talked to him for a little bit … and then took him out of the classroom."

According to Sood, "It appeared as though the Columbine shooting set off in his mind the fantasies around suicide and homicide which were picked up in a class essay…and was picked up by the teacher who then sought the parents out and suggested that he be evaluated and which led to the psychiatric evaluation and the intensification of the counseling."

Cho was diagnosed with major depression and "selective mutism" -- a mental disorder in which children choose not to speak. Cho was never diagnosed with any form of autism. He was quickly put on Paxil, an anti-depressant medication, for one year.

When asked by "Nightline" if Cho was ever returned to a cycle of anti-depressant medication, Sood responded, "As far as the records which are available to us, he was not ever put on any anti-depressant or psychotropic medication again in his life."

While their son was still living at home, the Cho family took him once a week to intensive counseling. The Virginia schools mobilized to support him. "The family was highly supportive of Cho and they [did] go over and beyond what another family might do in putting the supports into place and being very thoughtful and careful about his needs," Sood told "Nightline."

And according to Sood, it all seemed to work. "He did better in the sense that he looked brighter, he was more engaged, and that was based upon the information gleaned through our work that the therapist as well as the school personnel felt he was doing better."

In 2003, after the support of his family and his school had enabled him to graduate from high school with a 3.5 grade point average, Cho arrived at Virginia Tech -- one of 26,000 thousand students on a beautiful sprawling campus in Blacksburg, Va.

But the university was never informed of his mental illness. When asked by "Nightline" if Virginia Tech was made aware by the Fairfax County Schools of Cho's needs and issues, Sood explained that the record never made it to Virginia Tech. When asked if they should have been forwarded, Sood responded, "That is a debatable question and it's something that society, our nation, has to grapple with as to what happens to these records as a person transitions into college."

College life had a negative effect on Cho, leaving him more isolated than he had ever been. And Virginia Tech's support systems failed him -- repeatedly.

When Cho left his home in Washington, D.C.'s Virginia suburbs, he appeared to be a young man who had overcome mental illness with the help of medication, counseling and the support of his family and his schools. His parents tried to keep supporting him -- they visited him every week his first year at Virginia Tech. But in college, Cho's illness went untreated, and school officials repeatedly missed the warning signs that he was a danger.

It was at the beginning of his junior year, the fall of 2005, that Cho broke his customary silence in ways his classmates and professors found deeply disturbing.

Lucinda Roy was head of the English Department in Cho's junior year, when he began writing things in class that were filled with anger and violent fantasies. "I thought he was maybe suicidal, he just seemed so depressed and I was also just concerned with him in general so I thought I need to alert everyone. So I did."

Roy began tutoring him privately after another professor grew frightened of Cho and requested police protection for the class. Roy and at least one other professor tried to get him help, reaching out to the Cook Counseling Center on campus.

"I did call on several occasions and said this young man does seem to be troubled," Roy said. "I used stronger language than that, and I would have appreciated a more bold response."

Cho did in fact contact the Cook Counseling Center four times, including once in person, during those months. But it seems little was done -- no one can be sure, as the records of Cho's minimal treatment are missing.

According to Sood, "There was no assessment and no intervention. We do not have the records from any of those contacts."

Marcus Martin, another member of the Virginia Tech review panel, revealed to "Nightline" information the panel was able to gather from Cho's roommates. They "remember burning [school] papers in his room and hiding the burnt papers somewhere under the sofa and mattress somewhere in the room. The report tells exactly where he hid them. He was taken to a party by his suitemates and in a girl's room in the dorm he reportedly sat in the corner, took a knife, and stabbed the carpet repeatedly."

Martin also revealed to "Nightline" information about one of the papers Cho had written in a fiction workshop class in the spring of 2006. The story is eerily similar to the events of April 16, 2007.

Martin summarizes the beginning of the story by saying that "Cho writes he's talking about a character by the name of Bud and it tells the story of a morning in the life of Bud who gets out of bed, and it's unusually early. He puts on his black jeans and a strappy black vest with many pockets, a black hat, large dark sunglasses and a flimsy jacket. At school he observes students, smiling, laughing, embracing each other. A few eyes glance at Bud but without the glint of recognition."

Cho wrote in an excerpt of his story about Bud, "So I hate this. I hate all these frauds. I hate my life. This is it. This is when you … this is when you God damn people die with me." In the story, Bud never acts on his thoughts, instead driving away in a stolen car with a "gothic girl."

But unlike Bud, Cho acted. One year later, after the massacre at Virginia Tech, Cho was found dead, wearing the same dark clothing as Bud.

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